Akeelah and the Bee How Do You Spell Relief?

Taking a rare premise these days, the development of a child’s mind, Akeelah and the Bee dramatizes how a child learns to think and how her pursuit of knowledge inspires an entire community. This picture’s for anyone who had a favorite subject in school.

Scholastic goals are perceived as a sign of inferiority in thug-infested South Central Los Angeles, where the movie takes place, and Akeelah—a bright girl in a troubled family headed by a hard-working widow (Angela Bassett)—is fed up with her neighborhood, her family and her peers, whom she believes punish her for being smarter than other kids.

Akeelah is right: they do, because she is smarter—much smarter—and, for making a movie about a person of ability instead of Hollywood’s usual derelicts, degenerates and various malcontents, writer and director Doug Atchison deserves the highest praise. Akeelah knows how to spell and excel and this is her story.

As spectacled Akeelah, 12-year-old Illinois actress Keke Palmer is perfect, possessing an earnest, confident disposition and letting her eyes do the acting to show that her character makes thoughtful, qualified judgments about the world around her. An excellent cast aids her.

Among them are Sahara Grey as her best friend Georgia, who wants to be a stewardess and isn’t afraid of being the only one to cheer her girlfriend on when the rest of the school’s losers ridicule Akeelah for spelling beyond the low limits of a government-sponsored education. There is also Julito McCullum as her kind, handsome older brother—a fine young man who serves in the military—who is Akeelah’s hero.

A teacher is encouraging, but Akeelah, beaten by bullies for being intelligent and missing her late Scrabble-proficient dad, finds guidance in an older college professor (Laurence Fishburne)—one who actually knows something of value and exercises discrimination in deciding whom to teach.

Sounding her letters in rhythm as she spells those million-dollar words, Akeelah makes his cut. Once he bans that ghetto language habit of hers, Prof takes her on for tutoring.

The journey to the national spelling bee is predictable but multi-faceted: her mother (Bassett, re-teaming with Fishburne for the first time since What’s Love Got to Do with It) rewards the problem child, neglects the child of the mind but learns to be a proper parent; Akeelah’s sister, an unwed mother, demands justice for her kid sister; a rich kid (JR Villareal) has a knack for stand-up comedy and a soft spot for the adorable South Central speller; a principal (Curtis Armstrong) is prone to bend the rules for the sake of an individual; and an automaton (Sean Michael Afable) copes with an abusive father.

The brains of the movie are the relationship between Akeelah—whose neighborhood rallies around her as she rises to local TV fame—and Fishburne’s English tutor. The professor teaches Akeelah to think, not merely memorize words. He organizes the material around ideas—using every tool from jump ropes to quotations from various intellectuals—in a systematic approach that’s based on understanding the words as concepts, including their linguistic origins. Watching them teach and learn is electrifying and more of it would have made Akeelah and the Bee absolutely flawless.

As Akeelah rises toward competition in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the picture’s focus shifts to a competing speller, and it affords a lesson in how to spell magnanimous, which drains some of the drama from the competition. Yet, no matter how you pick it apart, Doug Atchison’s drama is this spring’s feel-good movie, with the good feelings coming from rational thoughts, for a change.

Originally published April 27, 2006 by Box Office Mojo

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